Michelangelo’s “Slave Awakening”

michelangelo_slave Robert Snyder made two inspiring documentaries about Michelangelo—and films about others including Buckminster Fuller, Claudio Arrau and Willem de Kooning.

I’ve been haunted by his 1989 documentary Michelangelo: Self Portrait. The voice-over narration, by Michael Sonnabend, is adapted from Michelangelo’s diaries and the contemporary biographies by Vasari and Condivi.

A section of the film shows his troubles with the Rovere family who hounded him to finish the incompleteable project of Pope Julius’s tomb. He would work at it, get called away by other projects, then never-endingly be called back.

Fittingly, four of the figures, never completed, were Titan slaves, meant to surround the figure of Moses. For example, this illustration shows the Slave Awakening.

In the narration, whether historically accurate or not, Michelangelo says some quite moving things about these figures. His comments apply to the figures ambiguously either as marble statues or as the Titans they represent. They apply equally ambiguously to Michelangelo and his own work in creating them. I think they apply also to all of us, because they’re about what it is to be human, about our incompleteness and our struggle.

Michelangelo, as a character in the documentary, says:

I pass from pope to pope, from tomb to tomb. My mind was dragged back from the Medici ghosts to Pope Julius’s tomb, still not finished. Will I ever be rid of this burden? The titanic effort of these giants struggling to reach the light, to break the marble spell, is all the hand that serves the brain can do. I leave them unfinished because of other demands; but such work is finished at every stage. Life is always beginning. They stand caught in the act of freeing themselves, of becoming what they are.

In a brief, dignified, nonjudgmental moment, the film mentions Michelangelo’s love sonnets to a young male apprentice, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. (The posthumous attempts of others to bowdlerize Michelangelo’s sonnets by rewriting some passages to disguise their homoerotic feeling were described in John Addington Symonds’s Life of Michelangelo, available online at Project Gutenberg.)

The disc I rented also contained an earlier version, The Titan: Story of Michelangelo. Snyder, a former OSS officer, had assembled it by combining new photography with captured German wartime footage, and it won an Oscar in 1950. The Titan has the most successful photographs of sculpture I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to shoot sculpture; I know because I’ve tried. The Titan‘s black and white photography not only shows the marble beautifully but startlingly conveys the living flesh the hard marble represents.

The same disc contains brief excerpts from other Snyder documentaries: on Buckminster Fuller, Pablo Casals, Anaïs Nin, Claudio Arrau, Henry Miller, and Willem de Kooning. I read a lot about Fuller in the late ’60s, in the Whole Earth Catalog and elsewhere, but nothing then conveyed the excitement that Snyder’s documentary does. It has startling footage of the Dymaxion car, and it successfully shows the open attractiveness of the geodesic dome from the Montreal Expo. The Claudio Arrau excerpt reminded me that it was watching a video of Arrau playing that first attracted me to his music: his emotional reaction is so rapt and intense. I’ve long been intrigued by the figuration in de Kooning’s painting, but seeing him execute his brushwork was astonishing. He’s fluid and so impossibly quick.

Speaking of what it means to be human, in his 1970 book I Seem To Be a Verb, Buckminster Fuller wrote:

I live on Earth at present,
and I don’t know what I am.
I know that I am not a category.
I am not a thing — a noun.
I seem to be a verb,
an evolutionary process —
an integral function of the universe.

Altogether, I’m impressed with Robert Snyder’s work and grateful for it.

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